Monday, 31 January 2011

Boo! Hiss! Get off!

Writers like to stick 'notes to self' on their computer screens. 'Show, don't tell!' seems to be a popular one, as is 'be brave!' or 'get on with it!' Until now, all I've had on mine is a zigzaggy snake and a sticker saying 'old stuff rocks' (presents from my children). I wanted a post-it too, but what? For a while 'Facebook can wait' was a serious contender, but then I read this excellent post on layering by Victoria Mixen, and one phrase jumped out and bit me:

...get the heck out of the way.”

Which I take to mean: the author's place is round the back, pulling the strings, not prancing on stage, waving his learning/research/vocabulary/ego about. Or in other words:

Don't get between the reader and the story.*

Now, this isn't news to me – I've been learning it the hard way for years -- but seeing it end the sentence “Say what you’ve got to say, say it quick, and get the heck out of the way.” brought on that post-it note moment for me.

What do you have stuck to your screen? Wise words? Or ravioli?

*Yes, I know it's different for literary fiction:-)

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Confidence Trick

Every time I read about a writer shuffling through a dog-eared, coffee-drizzled pile of foolscap or 'making that leap from the notebook to the screen', I always feel a little inadequate. Maybe this is how it's supposed to be done. Perhaps I'm not the real thing because I can only write on a computer.

I've mentioned before that it took me years to screw up enough confidence to launch into a novel. There are many reasons for this (I can't simply blame Art School mentality), but one of them was definitely disgust at my own handwriting.

In my mid-twenties I started a children's novel. I didn't have a computer then so I wrote by hand. I can't remember much about it, but I do recall that everything about the sight of my scribble cried out 'put me in the bin and go to the pub!'. So after a few pages, I did. Perhaps if I'd used a word processor, I might just have been less prejudiced. Nicely justified and spell-checked in Times New Roman, perhaps I would have been able to concentrate on the story and take it somewhere interesting. Perhaps.

Agents, editors and established writers sometimes complain about this phenomenon -- the way word processing creates the illusion of competence. Mediocrity can dress itself up as literature, right from the off. That'll be a bad sign for me then. But I can't help being grateful for the crutch that got me walking, and gave me the confidence to want to run.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Ghosts & Gangsters

Here are more black and white samples -- character studies for a comic novella I wrote at the end of last year. I can't say anything about that until a certain acquisitions meeting at the end of the month (cue heartburn), but since there's a chance I would illustrate the book too, I've been warming up.

Who am I kidding, I've been trying to warm up for years.

I feel like I've been fighting the materials since my mid-teens, with the sorry result that I'm basically just hiding from the the whole issue of colour right now. But I'm determined to gain some sense of mastery in black and white. I mean, black pen on white paper – how hard can it be? Answer: finger-achingly, back-ossifyingly tough. But at least I'm in no doubt about the Faber-Castell PITT artist pen (hurray!), especially when 180g course grain paper resists the nib so nicely.

My aim in all this is to make pen feel like pencil. Click for a closer look. Why not just use a pencil? Um... I'll have to get back to you on that.

Monday, 10 January 2011

The Ladder of Fear

It’s incredible how much fear and trembling is involved in building a career as a writer. The trick, I suppose, is to use that fear as fuel to drive your creative engines, but surely even glass-half-full people spend days chewing on their own souls. In fact, I'm told that even the most successful novelists never quite step off the top of the Ladder of Fear.

The first Rung. You really want – no, need -- to write, and you even have a story to tell, but you don’t yet know if you are capable of completing something the shape and scope of a novel. I let self-doubt like this keep me frozen on the first rung for years. It was here that I hid behind the fact that I was an illustrator (“we don’t DO words, okay?”) so that I could postpone the potential discovery that I was incapable of doing the thing I really wanted – no, needed – to do (chew, chew, chew…)

The Second Rung. I sometimes think half the blogosphere is comprised of people stuck here. This is the place for those who have completed a first draft or three, but now have to face the considerable challenge of wrangling and revising and cold-sweating it into shape in order to win an agent/publishing deal, despite nagging self-doubt, a demanding day job and a steady rain of rejection. As is well known, getting beyond this is about ten times harder than writing the damn stuff in the first place. The ground is littered with broken dreams and empty wine bottles, but at least you don’t have to stand in them.

The Third Rung. Here’s where people who have publishing deals end up, twitching but probably half expecting the fear to ease up from now on. Only it doesn’t. Because despite having a measure of acceptance, not to mention industry professionals to guide you, bad books still get published, and what if yours is one of them? What if you get horrible Amazon reviews? Or worse still, what if you don’t get reviewed at all?

This is where I am, tormented by the fear that come 2012 my name will be very publicly stamped on a block of 80k words that right now I can hardly control, let alone judge. I do know that there are good bits, but I also know that good bits just aint good enough. Nobody wants to actually eat the Curate’s egg.

The Fourth Rung. I can actually see this from where I cling, and I can well imagine that having to write a second book that matches up to the first (in only a fraction of the time) must be pretty scary. And I can also see how the aviator who crashes is worse off than the aviator whose plane is still on the runway. But I can’t quite feel this fear yet. It belongs to someone else. Though it is waiting for me.

The Fifth Rung and Beyond. Having got published will you manage to stay published? Will you earn enough to keep writing? Will you match up to your ‘earlier promise’? Or will you write something foolish on your blog and ruin your reputation? Or perhaps you'll just swallow a poisonous toad and die before you can finish your breakout novel? God alone knows, and maybe he’s even up there somewhere, but from where I stand the ladder disappears into the clouds and I can’t see much. Except, is that a Nobel Prize for Literature falling my way? Or just a stick of dynamite? And is that Neil Gaiman I can see, trembling fearfully as he reaches rung fifty-seven?

(chew, chew…)

Saturday, 1 January 2011

2010, eh?

Happy New year!

I'm not very inclined to dissect the year just gone. It contained a few great moments for me, most notably landing a publishing deal for my d├ębut novel (did I mention that?), and also saw me moving back across to the sunny side of the Channel, but there was enough tedium and frustration to make the arrival of 2011 very welcome. So my best foot is well and truly forward this January morning, and there's even a slight spring in the old step too. Lots to do.

I don't make New Year's resolutions any more – I'm more of a five-year-plan kinda guy – but I do like to consciously tackle something connected with my career at this time of the year. Last time round it was the fact that I felt poorly-read in recent kid-lit, and I read nearly 50 MG and YA novels last year as a result. This year's issue will be branding: how should I promote myself as a novelist whilst taking into account everything I've done -- and am still doing -- in picture books? And where does my illustration fit into all this?

Who am I exactly?

By this time next year I plan to have a website that resolves all this. Right now though, I can hardly imagine what will be on it.

But let's not cram it all into one day. I think I'll go out for a walk, to see if I can spot any positive signs for the future in the dripping hedgerows and mist. Well, you never know...

Will you be making any resolutions? And if so, how will you enforce them?